Exploring the Swedish Lifestyle:
And, which is more important there – Style or
By Stephen Henderson
The Rival is a smart new boutique hotel in Stockholm
that’s partly owned by Benny Andersson, formerly of ABBA, Sweden’s infamous
pop quartet. When I stayed there a few weeks ago, above my bed was a huge
blow-up of a black and white photograph, depicting a dreamy-eyed young man
playing his violin, while seated beside a waterfall on a sunny day.
An arresting image, suggestive of the giddiness that
occurs in this northern country -- Stockholm is on the same latitude as
Anchorage, Alaska -- when warm weather finally arrives. As the local saying
goes, “you can’t appreciate a Swedish spring, until you’ve lived through a
Swedish winter.” Yet, the fiddler on the river, as I came to regard him,
also hinted at the cheery way Swedes have of celebrating the beauty in
To be sure, cheeriness is not the first thing many
Americans associate with Sweden. Better known are the Nobel Prizes which
will be awarded on December 10 (as they have on this same date – the
anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death – since 1901) to winners in five fields
– physics, chemistry, medicine, literature and peace. Some moviegoers
continue to revere the exquisite aloofness of Greta Garbo’s screen presence,
or the bleakness of Ingmar Bergman films.
Yet, with all due respect to these mighty moments in
Swedish culture, the national ethos is better represented these days by the
bright, irresistible designs from IKEA, or “Mama Mia!,” the giddy pastiche
of ABBA songs that’s a long-running hit on Broadway.
“In this country, 80% of people are Lutheran, yet it’s
often said that Sweden has a church with no believers, and believers with no
church,” observed Agneta Lagercrantz, a journalist with Svenska Dagbladet, a
Stockholm newspaper. “If the truth be told, our main religion is worship of
nature and being outdoors.”
Her point is well taken. The vast majority of Sweden’s
territory is forests and lakes, so country life influences the city here,
not the other way around. Out for a walk the first afternoon I arrived in
Stockholm, I overheard people bragging about the mushrooms and lingonberries
they’d picked over the weekend. I saw ladies walking through the park with
cross country ski poles in their hands, as if they couldn’t wait for the
first snow. Each winter, there is a Viking race in which skaters traverse
the frozen waters from Upsala (a university town 60 miles north) into
downtown Stockholm. Swedes also hunt moose every fall. Natural predators
for these enormous creatures are nearly extinct, so they pose a serious
threat to automobile traffic.
Swedes are so protective of their distinctively
seasonal festivals, holidays, and customs that though their nation is a
member of the European Union, the country has eschewed the euro. Instead,
the Swedish Kroner consecrates national heroes such as Carl Linnaeus
(1707-1778), who classified the plant, animal and mineral worlds in his
Systema Naturae – a numbingly vast accomplishment perhaps only a Swede would
Designs for Living
Walking through Stockholm – with its extraordinary
variety of home décor stores (this may explain why Tyler Brulee, the former
editor of Wallpaper magazine, recently bought a house here), it’s obvious
that Swedes are devoted to seasonal design, as well. I passed a fascinating
hour at Larsson Korgmakare, a family-owned business which for generations
has manufactured warm-weather rattan and bamboo furniture. And, I spent a
small fortune at Job’s fabric, makers of silkscreened linen such as their
best-selling pattern, “Sommar” or summer, which is a riot of peonies and
Ambling forth at dusk, I was surprised to see candles
burning everywhere: not just in restaurants, either, but at gyms and by the
grocery store cash register. Unlike the haughtier styles of Italy and
France, or the sometimes alienating artistry of Asia, there is nothing
off-putting about the Swedish obsession with beauty. It’s altogether
practical. Since you have to drive a car, sit in a chair, or drink juice,
Swedes believe these humdrum happenstances might as well involve works of
“I have designed many water carafes in my life,” said
Ingegard Raman, a designer for Orrefors Crystal, who I sat with one morning
in her austere studio overlooking a pond. I watched her sketch on pieces of
translucent rice paper, one layered on the next like phyllo dough, until a
shape she was refining gradually emerged. “Because if I make something
beautiful, people will drink more water.”
Not to mention buy more carafes. Swedes regard design
not only aesthetically, but economically, too. Their country may be large,
but it has a small population (9 million people, or about the same as New
York City’s.) To build wealth, the country has developed such globally
popular brands as Volvo, SAAB, Ericsson telecommunications, or the youthful
fashions of H&M stores. It’s no wonder that the “art industry” is referred
to with utmost respect in Sweden.
As it has been for centuries. Visit the National
Museum, and you’ll find the entire second floor devoted to shapes, patterns
and ornament which prove how a design culture helped determine the country’s
international stature. At the end of this fascinating exhibit, I gulped
while standing before a boxy table, built from humble particle board, and
designed in 1979 by Jan Hellzen for IKEA. This same table, which I’d
purchased not too long ago for $14.99, holds up my TV and DVD player. Here
it was again…but curated.
The Log Island
Stockholm is a relatively compact city – most sections
of town can be reached in a brisk, half-hour’s walk. For longer distances,
Stockholm’s subway system is referred to as the “longest art gallery in the
world,” as its nearly 100 stations are each vibrantly decorated. The city
wasn’t bombed during World War II, so many centuries-old architecture is
There are also more museums in Stockholm per capita,
than anywhere in the world: history museums, art, food, music, and botanical
museums. The Vasa museum is built around a resurrected 16th century battle
ship. There is a Pippi Longstocking theme park (based on Astrid Lindgren’s
fictional wild child) and Skansen, where you can go see how Swedes lived in
times past. This cultural diversification is best explained by the fact
that Swedes love to form small groups around something – wine, sewing, the
hunt – they find amusing.
Stockholm is built on 14 islands that lie at the
intersection of Lake Malaren and the Baltic Sea. On the Baltic Side, a vast
archipelago is arrayed where the wealthy have summer homes and enjoy sailing
expeditions. In a city of 850,000 people, it’s estimated that there are an
astonishing 200,000 pleasure boats. Such a passion for sea-faring is
doubtless a holdover from when Sweden was a nautical power. Swedish Vikings
plundered Russia from 850 to 1100, and Finland belonged to Sweden for nearly
500 years mostly because it was easy sail away.
Stockholm, however, wasn’t always the capitol of
Sweden. This honor belongs to another town, Sigtuna, which was sacked in
1168 by raiders from nearby Estonia. Terrified citizens secreted what
little silver they’d managed to hide into a hollow log, which they floated
down river with plans to relocate wherever the wood came ashore.
Eventually, this spot was dubbed Stockholm, or “log island.”
As the settlement grew beyond Gamla Stan, the “old
town,” other islands were named for their relation to it. To the south is
Sodermalm, or “southern suburb,” which has a bohemian air of funky shops,
bars and restaurants (the Rival Hotel is located here.) Norrmalm, or the
“northern suburb,” directly above Gamla Stan is Stockholm’s main business
and shopping center. Don’t miss this area’s Kulterhuset, a vast arts
complex, which includes, among other curious delights, a comic book library.
Gamla Stan’s highest point, Stortorget, is a collection
of 16th and 17th century houses surrounding a main square which was once was
a combination grocery store, job center and gossip grapevine. This square
is now home to the Alfred Nobel Museum, where a track system runs across the
ceiling, carrying by photographs and brief descriptions of all the laureates
honored over the last century. So quiet and dignified is this space, one
almost forgets that dynamite was the source of Alfred Nobel’s fortune.
I pondered this guns-into-butter irony while eating
lunch nearby. My appetizer was three types of herring – pickled, in
mustard, and with crème fraiche and dill -- then (what else?) Kottbullar, or
Swedish meatballs. They were just as rubbery and flavorless as the ones my
Mother used to make, a realization that made me somehow proud. Dessert was
the real prize – small cylinders of yellow cake iced with chocolate and
vanilla marzipan. Called damm sugare, or “dust suckers,” they’re shaped
like tiny Electrolux vacuum cleaners, yet another Swedish design.
Walking on Glass
Several days later, I flew further south to the
Smalands, an area in Sweden known as the “Kingdom of Crystal.” I’d been
fascinated by Stockholm’s many displays of art glass, and was anxious to
tour factories where glass is still blown and shaped by hand.
Driving through the dense forests here, I had a strong
blast of deja-vu, and wasn’t sure why. The fir trees rise tall and
perfectly straight, their trunks bare of branches, but bursting into a plume
of green at the top. There is a profusion of lakes, wooded right up to
their shores. Every few miles, I’d pass an identical farm house, always
painted red with white trim, a thin wisp of smoke rising from the stone
chimney. Everything was neat as a pin. It looked like an Electrolux had
been rolled over these front yards.
Suddenly, I knew what this territory looked like:
Minnesota! This seemed wonderfully odd, as it was from this part of Sweden
that nearly 25% of the local population emigrated to America in the late
19th century – many of whom settled in what would later become
Minneapolis. If this phenomenon intrigues you, by all means read Vilhelm
Moberg’s novel of 1949, The Emigrants, a harrowing tale of the poor farmer
Karl Oscar and his long-suffering wife Kristina. So beloved is this
narrative by Swedish-Americans, a statue of this fictional couple stands in
What saved Smalands from utter devastation was glass
making, which began here in 1742 when a factory named KostaBoda opened its
doors. The first glass was crude “bull’s eye” windows (so-called because of
their bump at the center) and medicine bottles. As industrialization
developed, the affluence of Sweden’s middle classes increased, as did demand
Made of sand and potash, glass is believed to have been
discovered nearly 6,000 years ago by Egyptian or Mesopotamian potters.
Molten glass glows a hot orange, and is scooped out of its vat, blown like a
bubble, then manipulated with wooden forms and, nowadays, wet newspaper. It
takes seven people to make one wine glass. Their choreographed movements
are all the more remarkable, because while passing around sticky fire, most
wear shorts and sandals.
Over a million people from all over the world come to
visit these factories each year in the Kingdom of Crystal, making it one of
Sweden’s top tourist attractions. Glass making is the closest you’ll ever
get to seeing alchemy, so it’s a technique around which mysteries and
superstitions tend to gather.
For instance, when I talked to Bertil Vallien, a
renowned designer at Kosta-Boda, he told me the bizarre story of Karolinna
Olsson. She was a 13-year-old who at the end of the 19th century, slipped
on the ice in the nearby town of Okno, hit her head, and went into a coma
for over three decades, finally waking in 1908. Vallien hinted that during
Olson’s long sleep, she was like glass: there, yet not there. Present, but
absent. That ice, a substance to which glass is frequently compared, was
the cause of her coma only compounds the metaphor.
When glass was melted over burning wood, fires were
stoked all night. Townsfolk and vagabonds would gather after dark, warm
themselves, and tell tales while their food cooked in the flames. This
custom lives on today in something called a hyttsill, where tourists can eat
dinner in a glass factory after hours. Sausage and herring is prepared in
wet newspaper, and when the paper catches fire, chow’s on.
The hyttsill I attended was an awkward, yet hilarious
affair. I was seated with a few American ladies – all connoisseurs of
crystal -- and probably a hundred men visiting from the Ukraine. I don’t
know how long these guys were away from home, but they looked longingly at
my new friends. I vaguely feared the Ukrainians would toss me – their
“protector,” the women kept nervously joking – into the fire, along with the
smoldering sausages. As it happened, they quickly got so drunk on schnapps,
that the only punishment they inflicted was the bellowing of sentimental
songs much-beloved in the former Soviet Union.
An Island in the Sun
The next day, I drove on to Oland, a long island off
Sweden’s southeastern coast. Oland gets more sun than any spot in the
country, so it’s sometimes referred to as the “Swedish Riviera.” People have
lived or visited here for thousands of years. In addition to fantastically
scenic camping sites and beaches, there are windmills, Viking burial
grounds, and the ruins of a castle, Borgholm’s Slott, the oldest part of
which dates back to the 9th century.
In summertime, Oland boasts rare flowers, such as blue,
purple and red orchids so plentiful, they literally carpet the fields. I’m
told the best time of year to visit is at the end of June, during
Scandanavia’s famed “Northern Lights,” when the sun never seems to set. A
maypole is raised, people dance around, and there’s drinking for days.
Sadly, I was too late for these festivities. But when I
dined at Olond’s Halltorp Inn, I toasted this fascinating place with
fragrant gin made from elderberry flowers that grew on the island. Josef
Weichl is a nationally-renowned chef, and the meal he prepared — an
asparagus salad, and veal sautéed with local mushrooms -- was magnificent.
I lingered after dinner, watching a guy at an adjoining
table enjoy his coffee, the “Old Swedish” way. He poured the fluid into his
saucer to cool it, chomped down on a lump of hard sugar, and then politely
sipped through his clenched teeth. Imagine that. In Sweden, even drinking
a cup of coffee can be a celebration.
When You Go
When dialing telephone numbers in Sweden from the
United States, dial 011-46, and then the numbers listed below.
Hotel Rival, Mariatorget 3, P.O. Box 17525, Stockholm
118 91. Tel. 8-545-789-00. www.rival.se
Super-groovy “boutique”hotel. Ask for a room overlooking the park. Rooms
start at $200.
Langholmer Hotel, Langholmsmuren 20, P.O. Box 9116,
Stockholm 102 72. Tel. 8-725 85-00.
A renovated 19th century prison. Yes, you will sleep in a cell, albeit one
with cable TV. Rooms start at $90.
Halltorp Inn, Borgholm 387 92, Oland (southern Sweden) Tel. 485-850-00.
A picturesque spot with only 25 rooms overlooking the shoreline and a nature
reserve. Rooms start at $145.
Pontus in the Green House, Osterlanggatan 17,
Gourmet Magazine calls it the best restaurant in Sweden. Extraordinary
wine, food and surroundings. Entrees start at $25.
Tranan, Karlborgsvagen 14, Stockholm, 8-527-281-00.
Lively atmosphere, and an impressive array of shellfish, seafood and braised
meats. Entrees start at $18.
P.M., Storgatan 22-24, Vaxjo (southern Sweden),
A dazzling menu of new Swedish cuisine (no meatballs here!). Entrees start
Hyttsill, Kosta Boda, (southern Sweden), 478-500-00.
After hours dining among the glass kilns of a crystal factory. Herring,
sausages and loads of laughs. $30, all inclusive.
Nobel Museum, Stortorget, Stockholm, 8-23-25-06,
Opened in 2001 to commemorate the Nobel Prize’s first
The Historical Museum. Narvavagen 13-17, Stockholm, 8
Objects from the Stone Age to the 16th century, including gold and Viking
Vasa Museum, Galarvarvsvagen 14, Stockholm,
Largest and best-preserved 16th century ship in the world.
Larsson Korgmakare, Kakbrinken 11-A, Stockholm,
A store selling exquisite rattan and bamboo furniture.
Job’s Fabric, Stora Nygatan 19, Stockholm, 8-209-816.
A shop selling Swedish flowering printed textiles.
Guided Tours of Crystal Factories, Southern Sweden.
For more information, contact Kosta Boda,
www.kostaboda.se, or Orrefors,
See glass being made before your very eyes.
The Swedish Emigrant Museum, Vilhelm Mobergs Gata 4,
Vaxjo (Southern Sweden), 470-201-20.
Learn about the brave souls who sailed to the United States, many on the
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